The key role played by labour inspection in the development of labour relations is indisputable; in fact, the history of labour law is the history of the labour inspection system. Before the establishment of the first labour inspectorates, labour laws were mere declarations of goals whose infringement resulted in no sanctions. True labour law arose when a specific body was charged with ensuring compliance with the rules, thereby giving effect to the law by means of legal sanctions.
The first national attempts to establish a system of labour inspection centred on the creation of voluntary bodies which acted without remuneration to protect women and children employed in industry and which were a response to the peculiar nature of economic liberalism. Experience soon imposed the necessity to create a body of a coercive nature that would really be able to protect the working population as a whole. The first law introducing an official factory inspectorate was passed in Great Britain in 1878 on the grounds that the requirements relating to the appointment of honorary enforcers had not been faithfully carried out and therefore the protection measures had not been applied. The law conferred on factory inspectors the following basic powers: unrestricted entry into factories, free questioning of workers and employers, requiring the production of documents and the capacity to settle disputes and ascertain infringements of the laws.
The evolution of the various regulations had the result in subsequent years of reaffirming the authority of factory inspectors as administrative officials, separating out and gradually eliminating their function as judges. The idea emerged of the inspector as a paid civil servant but also a participant in the labour relations system, an official of the state who ensures that the government shows its human side through his or her direct presence in the workplace. With this goal in mind, the inspectorate was converted into a basic organ for the development and application of legislation; it became, in fact, a fundamental pillar of social reform.
This dual concept of its activities (strict control and active observation of the facts) reveals the origins of inspectoral activity within legal institutions. On the one hand, the labour inspectorate works with clear, specific legal texts which have to be applied; and, on the other hand, the correct articulation and exercise of its functions lead it to interpret the letter of the law by means of direct action. The inspector has to know not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit behind it and he or she must therefore be sensitive to the world of work and have a profound knowledge not only of the rules but also of the technical and production procedures. Thus the inspectorate is an organ of labour policy, but also a creative institution of progress, progress that is fundamental to the very evolution of labour law and labour relations.
The evolution of the world of work has continued to deepen and reinforce the role of the inspectorate as an independent organ of control at the centre of the labour relations sphere. In a parallel way, modification and change in the world of work generate new aims and forms of internal relationships in the complex microcosm that is the workplace. The original concept of a paternalistic type of relationship between the inspector and those subject to inspection gave way early on to more participatory action by the representatives of employers and workers, with the inspector involving the interested parties in his or her activities. Hence the role of conciliator in collective disputes was assigned to labour inspectors right from the beginning in the legislation of many countries.
Together with the consolidation of the role of the state inspector, advances in the trade union movement and professional organizations aroused a greater interest on the part of the workers themselves in active participation in inspection. After various attempts by the workers to incorporate themselves in direct inspectorial action (e.g., attempts to establish worker-inspectors as existed in Communist countries), the independent and objective status of the inspectorate came to be favoured, with its definitive transformation into a state organ consisting of civil servants. However, the participatory attitude of the workers’ and employers’ representatives was not lost in their contacts with the new institution: the inspectorate, in addition to being an independent entity, was also converted into a participant holding a special place in the dialogue between those representatives.
From this perspective the inspectorate developed progressively and in parallel with social and economic evolution. For example, the protectionist tendency of the state during the first third of the twentieth century resulted in substantial modifications in labour law, adding a considerable number of graduates to those already enrolled as inspectors. One immediate consequence of these developments was the creation of a true labour administration. Similarly, the emergence of new forms of work organization and the pressure of market forces on the public service at the end of the twentieth century have of course also affected the labour inspectorate in many countries.
The inspectorate, originally conceived as a body of legal controllers, has modified its own activity over time and converted itself into a useful and integrated mechanism responsive to the technological needs of new forms of work. In this way labour law has also grown, adapting itself to the new needs of production/services and incorporating regulations of a technical nature. Hence the appearance of related sciences: the sociology of labour, ergonomics, occupational safety and health, labour economics and so on. With new emphases and perspectives going beyond the purely legal sphere, the inspector became an active element of the true application of rules in workplaces, not only by virtue of applying sanctions but also by advising employers’ and workers’ representatives.
Generalist versus Specialist
The national regulations themselves have adopted two different organizational approaches to inspection: the generalist inspectorate (which arose in continental Europe) and the specialist inspectorate (which originated in the United Kingdom). Without entering into the arguments concerning the advantages of one or the other system, the terminology of the titles reveals two quite different perspectives. On the one hand, the generalist (also called unitary) approach involves inspectorial action performed by a single person, assisted by various technical institutions, on the assumption that the general appreciation of a single inspector can provide a more logical and coherent basis for the solution of various labour problems. The generalist inspector is an arbiter (in the sense of the word used in ancient Rome) who, having consulted with the relevant specialized bodies, tries to respond to the difficulties and problems posed by the particular workplace. The generalist inspector handles labour relations disputes directly. The specialist inspectorate, on the other hand, takes direct action through the use of a pre-eminently technical inspector, who has to resolve specific problems within a more narrow scope. In a parallel manner, purely labour relations questions are dealt with by bipartite or sometimes tripartite mechanisms (employers, trade unions, other government agencies), which try to resolve conflicts through a dialogue among them.
Despite the differences between the two trends, the point of convergence lies in the fact that the inspector continues to be a living expression of the law. In the generalist inspection system, the inspector’s central position allows him or her to recognize immediate needs and make modifications accordingly. The Italian situation is particularly illustrative of this: the law empowers the inspector to issue executory rules to complement the general regulations, or to substitute more specific regulations. In the case of the specialist inspectorate, the inspector’s in-depth knowledge of the problem and of the technical standards allows him or her to assess possible non-compliance with reference to the legal requirements and prevention of hazards and also to propose alternative solutions for immediate application.
The Present Role of Inspection
The central role of the inspector means that, in addition to his or her supervisory function, the inspector frequently becomes a pillar of support for existing social institutions in the labour field. Apart from the function of general control as regards legal requirements concerning working conditions and workers’ protection, the inspectorate in many countries supervises the fulfilment of other requirements relating to social services, the employment of foreign workers, vocational training, social security and so on. To be effective, a labour inspectorate should have the characteristics embodied in the ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81): sufficient staffing levels, independence, adequate training and resources and the powers necessary to carry out inspections and to achieve solutions to the problems found.
In many countries the inspection services are also given responsibilities in the resolution of labour disputes, participation in the negotiation of collective agreements at the request of the parties, activities relating to the gathering and evaluation of socio-economic data, drafting memoranda and expert technical advice in their fields for the labour authorities and other functions of a purely administrative nature. This extension and multiplicity of tasks arises from the concept of the inspector as an expert in labour relations with specific technical knowledge. It also reflects a special vision of a framework for the operation of enterprises which sees the inspectorate as the ideal institution for evaluating and solving the difficulties of the world of work. However, this multidisciplinary character in some cases gives rise to a basic problem: dispersion. It may be asked whether labour inspectors, being obliged to assume multiple responsibilities, do not run the risk of having to favour activities of an economic or other nature to the detriment of those which should be the essence of their mission.
The major controversy over the determination of the typical and priority functions of the inspectorate relates to the function of conciliation of labour disputes. Although surveillance and supervision surely make up the daily activity of the inspector, it is no less certain that the workplace is the centre of labour conflict, whether individual or collective. The question thus arises as to whether all the control and evaluation activity of the inspectorate does not imply, in some measure, “palliative” action as regards conflict itself. Let us examine an example: the inspector who suggests the application of legal requirements concerning noise is in many cases responding to a complaint from the workers’ representatives, who consider that the high decibel level affects work performance. When advising the employer, the inspector is proposing a measure for resolving an individual conflict generated within day-to-day working relationships. The solution may or may not be adopted by the employer, without prejudice to the subsequent initiation of legal action in case of non-compliance. In a similar manner, an inspector’s visit to a workplace to examine whether an act of anti-union discrimination has occurred is aimed at diagnosing and if possible eliminating, internal differences that have arisen in that respect.
To what extent are the prevention and solution of conflicts different in the daily activity of the inspector? The answer is not clear. The close intermeshing of all the spheres that form part of the labour field means that the inspectorate is not only a living expression of the law but also a central institution in the labour relations system. An inspectorial body that examines the world of work as a whole will be able to assist in securing better conditions of work, a safe working environment and, as a result, improved labour relations.